A few years ago I wrote a column
about HDTV resolution and whether you should just buy a "standard" 720p/1080i set or pay the extra bucks for a higher-resolution 1080p set. The column was very popular, but people wanted me to update it as the market for HDTVs changed. So I did. The new column was called 720p vs. 1080p: The final word
. Alas, it was probably a poor title, because folks asked me to update that one as well.
Eventually, of course, manufacturers will completely phase out 720p TVs. But it may take a few years. While the number of new 720p models is dwindling, several manufacturers, including Sony, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, are putting out entry-level lines in 2009 that feature 720p TVs and we're getting a lot of readers asking whether they should save some dough and buy them. With that in mind, here's the word on 720p vs. 1080p, updated for this year.
1. What's so great about 1080p?
1080p resolution--which equates to 1,920x1080 pixels--is the current Holy Grail of HDTV resolution. That's because most 1080p HDTVs are capable of displaying every pixel of the highest-resolution HD broadcasts. They offer more than twice the resolution of step-down models, which are typically 1,366x768, 1,280x720, or 1,024x768. These days, HDTVs with any of those three of lower resolutions are typically called "720p." Nobody wants to remember all those numbers, and "768p" doesn't really roll off the tongue.
2. How much extra does a 1080p TV cost?
When I wrote my original article a few years ago, you had to pay a premium of about $1,000 to get a 1080p model at the same screen size as a "720p" set. While the gap has certainly narrowed, there's still a notable difference. In the case of a 32-inch LCD, for instance, you're looking at around a $200-$250 price bump. For example, the Samsung LN32B360 goes for $549.99, while the step-up 1080p version, the LN32B530, goes for $799.99. Sony has a similar price delta when it comes to its 32-inch LCDs.
As you move up the LCD-size chain, your 720p options basically disappear. Samsung and Sony, the two biggest names in LCD, don't even produce 720p LCDs larger than 32 inches anymore. You can still find older big-screen 720p models, like the 40-inch Samsung LN40A450, but they're becoming a rare breed.
When it comes to plasma, Panasonic's entry-level 42-inch TC-P42X1 720p carries a price of around $899.99, while the step-up 1080p version, the TC-P42S1, come in at $1,199.99 (street prices will vary, of course). Move up to Panasonic's 50-inch models and you're looking at more like a $700 delta, with the 720p TC-P50X1 coming in around $1,000 and the TC-P50S1 selling for $1,700--though Panasonic's S1 series does feature more-efficient, higher-contrast NEO-PDP panels. (Note: We do expect prices to drop slightly on all these models as the year progresses).
3. Why is 1080p theoretically better than 1080i?
1080i, the former king of the HDTV hill, actually boasts an identical 1,920x1,080 resolution, but conveys the images in an interlaced format (the i in 1080i). In a tube-based television, otherwise known as a CRT, 1080i sources get "painted" on the screen sequentially: the odd-numbered lines of resolution appear on your screen first, followed by the even-numbered lines--all within 1/30 of a second. Progressive-scan formats such as 480p, 720p, and 1080p convey all of the lines of resolution sequentially in a single pass, which makes for a smoother, cleaner image, especially with sports and other motion-intensive content.
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